Thoughts: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

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In a tragic incident, a woman and her three young children fall from the roof of a high building in Chicago. 11 year old Rachel is the only one to survive.

Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel examines Blackness, biraciality and belonging in the context of the US during the 1980s. After the fall Rachel, the child of a Black American GI and a white Danish mother, is sent to live with her Black grandmother in Portland Oregon. It is only then that light-skinned Rachel with the “bluest eye(s)”is confronted with how exactly she is to fit into the Black community. Until this point, we are told, Rachel has not had to confront this issues or colorism or anti-Black racism. Having grown up on US bases in Germany and spent vacations in Denmark has apparently allowed her to live in the in-between without having to choose either parts of her identity. I’m emphasizing this because while, yes, I do understand that this book focuses on biraciality in the Black community and obviously reflects the author’s own experience, I was confused about Rachel’s life before. I want this post to be spoiler-free, so let’s just say that the impact of racism plays a key role in the mysterious incident that lost Rachel much of her family, and then thinking about army bases as microcosmos and how racism in Germany operates – well it felt like there was a huge gap that asked me to ignore all these issues to buy into the premise that racism and having to explain her identity only really began in the US. Likely this is a stylistic choice and is not meant to leave me with this impression, but it took me a while to get into the story that I was actually presented with.

It’s important to remember that this story is set in the 80s, before Obama and more media outlets presented people with stories and images of biracial people. Rachel’s attempt of making sense of how she is positioned in relation to Blackness, from being an outsider to benefitting from colorism, is the main storyline of the novel. She is forever removed from her mother and the Danish language so crucial to her identity. Instead, she is told that she is an “Oreo,” speaking and acting as if she were white. Her grandmother meanwhile tries to mold her in the image of a good Black girl who is supposed to aim no higher than a secretarial job and lonely and hurt at never quite fitting in anywhere, Rachel goes looking for validation in all the wrong places.

These attempts of Rachel at forging a self are by far the strongest aspect of the novel and I would have gladly learned more. Another is of course the mysterious tragedy and multiple narrators are drawn on to act as witness and to provide the context to the way racism and mixed-racedness impact families. While the information and perspective provided by these different voices – a young boy named Brick, Rachel’s mother Nella, her father and Laronne who was Nella’s employer – help understand the reason for the tragedy, they also serve to fragment the book. And perhaps this is also a reason I felt distanced from Rachel for much of the novel, I would have liked spending more time with her and perhaps following her journey into adulthood. There is much material for a sequel.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a welcome contribution to literature about mixed-racedness, identity and belonging. Fittingly, it has won the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change. This is a debut novel that perhaps not always does justice to its fantastic premise, but it has an important story to tell and I will be reading the author’s next novel.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Readathon Update and Thoughts on Also by Mail

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Two hours into readathon, I’ve made a pot of tea, spent some time visiting other read-a-thoners and finished my first short book (hours read: um, 80 minutes/ pages read: 81), which counts as my second diversiverse read:

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Also by Mail is a short play about family, grief and racism. It follows Black German siblings Funke and Wale as they travel to Nigeria for the funeral of their deceased father. Once there, they have to deal with fights about the will and frustrations and misunderstandings with uncles, aunts and step-brothers.

The play explores the Nigerian diaspora, being mixed-race and racial profiling, but also family dynamics and different ways of dealing with loss. Wale is dissapointed over lost opportunities to connect to his father and his family and flies back to Germany only to become the victim of racial profiling. This incident is based on a true case, where a court decided that discrimination based on skin color in Germany was okay for police to do near border the border. This was later overthrown, but I have been frisked quite a few times in Germany, being to only person of color in a train car I was asked about my luggage and which station I was getting off etc. When I confronted them with the charge of racial profiling they were always highly entertained and always denied it. I’m glad that I don’t have to take that route anymore, but that’s Germany for you. Only Whiteness is recognized as German, all the rest of us are foreigners or people with a “migratory background.” As Wale says: “Because if you’re not a pale potato you can definitely not belong here legally?” Never let yourself be convinced Germany does not have a giant problem with racism, and not just ant-immigration extremists, idiotic liberals will also constantly spread micro-aggressions, asking you where you are really from etc, but when confronted with being racist they will break into tears.

So I chose this book to highlight the diversity of Germany, Olumide Popoola is Nigerian German now based in London. The story of Funke and Wale and growing up Black in Germany without the support of their father to face the casual and overt racism will stay with me for quite sometime and likely made me cite anti-discriminatory laws next time I get frisked. But it is also a hopeful story in that there is reconciliation for the family in Nigeria, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.

This will not be my last book by Popoola, but since this is actually my life it cut quite close and I will now gladly escape into my next read.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!